BEDI: U.S. authorities should develop new strategies of regulation for social media giants

There is a relatively simple principle that dictates how politics is created and disseminated in today’s world. Whatever social requirements or obligations governments fail to meet, the private sector will do. Just because the government isn’t stopping you from doing something doesn’t mean you can do it.

Perhaps the best example of this is language regulations. There is some demand for restrictions on many types of abusive language. That much is obvious. Federal and state governments that are bound by the reading of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court are prohibited from restricting public speaking in any meaningful way.

However, private companies such as Twitter, Facebook or Google are not. Given their strength and near monopsonic power, the restrictions that large corporations impose essentially set the industry standard for regulation in these areas. Given that two-thirds of American adults get their messages through social media, this type of regulatory power is comparable to that of the largest federal agencies.

But these companies also have other needs that they can benefit from. People want to be entertained and connect with like-minded people. Companies that want to employ a large user base with their product are forced by market conditions to promote this type of interaction online.

In a bygone era of American politics, the traditional mass media functioned as the porters of information – a kind of benevolent arbiter of national discourse and subjectivity. Journalists, in collaboration with a confident government, set the tone for society in many ways.

Today this status is gone. In the midst of a “curation economy” where people can choose what to consume and what to avoid, news is a personalized good, and this affects the ability of centralized institutions to control narrative. With access to individualized communities of like-minded readers, any American (including you) can get caught in an echo chamber conflicting with your fellow citizens such as paramilitary organizations.

Well, some may think that this is a good thing. You can say that this freedom of choice is worth the compromise. But we have to pause and ask ourselves which freedom of choice we are addressing. It’s not about freedom versus restrictions. It’s just about who can make the restriction – the government or Silicon Valley?

In the long run, it has caused great unrest in the government to let unaccountable private actors wield such immense power over the worldviews of American citizens. One only has to take a look at the political flames that are so widespread online and that too often find their way into the real world (but of course there is hardly any difference between the digital and the “real” world).

It is a permanent series of Kulturkampf with overlapping fronts. And in this war the truth is much less important than credibility. The mid-century expert, Christopher Lasch, noticed this when he said: “The truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without having authoritative content.”

The negative effects of such a status quo are obvious. However, you cannot open Pandora’s box. The networking capabilities of social media are in place, and smart actors know how to get what they want out of the system – whether terrorists recruiting young people from Facebook, conservative YouTubers pumping up views, or niche activists advocating set in political changes.

So there is actually a problem. How can we fix it? Many politicians, left and right, believe the solution is tighter, top-down regulation for social media companies. A hearing for Facebook here, new rules for Twitter there.

It can work to regulate what measures social media companies must take to suppress extremist actions and networks. However, such regulations can become onerous and there are always ways to get around them. Also, the boardroom interchange of government with federal agency may not be that big a change when you factor in the iron triangle.

Perhaps a better approach would be to remove government protections from such social media companies. In his book “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life”, writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb celebrates the regulatory impact of lawsuits on otherwise unaccountable bodies.

While regulations can be repealed or avoided, the possibility of a class action or concurrent litigation in a variety of lawsuits pursues large corporations and even smaller private actors.

And the power to bring such lawsuits does not depend on the will of a congressman, president, or federal bureaucrat, which means that John Q. Public can sue anyone he wants. Easing the lawsuit against social media companies by weakening Section 230 would therefore make at least a small contribution to turning the scales away from the titans of Silicon Valley.

Such legislation has already been proposed in Congress. In a broader framework that allows for easier lawsuits against social media companies, individual states could, at their own discretion, seek further reforms that allow certain types of lawsuits against social media giants.

The point is that sooner or later America will have to reckon with who we can control communications with here and what methods we consider acceptable to do so. While we are still a long way from ever fixing the problem, it is important to have conversations to make change happen.

Sumit Bedi is a college of arts and sciences with a focus on philosophy in the first year. His column “Through a Glass, Darkly” appears alternately on Tuesdays.

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